Twice in a week now we’ve seen religious conservatives trotting out the New Testament in defense of tax policies that favor the wealthy. I’m not opposed to using Scripture to bolster a political point, and it’s Jordan Sekulow’s prerogative if he wants to go on record supporting tax cuts for the rich. But this piece of work is a sad deployment of Jesus’ message as a straw man in the tax debate:
The Bible, specifically the New Testament, does not implore mankind to personally fund a social welfare state. When the government takes tax dollars and redistributes wealth, the citizens who provided that money are not voluntarily assisting those in need and thus not participating in a true act of charity.
“Do to others what you would have them do to you,” requires you taking action, not the government. There are a variety of charities, many with religious ties but plenty without, to support. The government acknowledges the importance of these organizations by grants of tax-exempt status.
Of course, Jesus’ calls to action are about personal behavior, personal works. And the government has always acknowledged the crucial role those private works play in easing suffering, building opportunity and pushing for equality. But turning these true statements about the New Testament into a legalistic exemption from concern about the effects of tax policy on equality is a textbook case of ignoratio elenchi (“irrelevant conclusion”). The fact that Jesus urged his followers to perform works of personal charity has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not tax cuts are moral or immoral. The bigger question, the one from which Sekulow’s legalism is calculated to shield him, is whether or not a Christian heeding all of Jesus’ words—which contain nothing if not denunciation of extreme wealth—is likely to consider defending the financial interests of the very, very rich as consistent with Christ’s moral passion.
Progressive Christians do not, to my knowledge, substitute the federal welfare state for “true acts of charity,” or refer to paying taxes or advocating that the extremely wealthy pay most of the taxes as “charity.” They’re just one part of a multi-faceted approach to defending the least of these in the way Jesus demanded.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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